The Miracle of the Herrings: Why Thomas Aquinas is a saint

August 6, 2013 • 8:00 am

You probably know that at least two documented miracles are required for anyone to achieve sainthood in the Catholic church, and that sometimes those miracles are pretty bizarre.

But I haven’t found one wonkier than “The miracle of the pilchards” that was used to raise Aquinas to “St. Thomas” in the Catholic pantheon.

Alert reader Grania, an ex-Catholic, sent me a YouTube clip of the “QI” show hosted by Stephen Fry, which apparently specializes in esoteric knowledge. If you watch the clip at the link, you’ll see, a few minutes in, a discussion about a fish-related miracle used to canonize Thomas Aquinas.

I found this hard to believe, but, sure enough, the internet has the document used to support Thomas’s canonization in 1319, a 19-page screed (when printed out in 12-point Times font) called “The Sanctity and Miracles of St. Thomas Aquinas; From the First Canonisation Enquiry“. The examination of miracles apparently took place at the Archbishop’s Palace in Naples from July 21 to September 18, 1319.

And, sure enough, The Miracle of the Pilchards is in section IX:

IX. Asked if he knew of other miracles attributed to brother Thomas, the witness said that he had heard of many; and in particular that when Thomas lay sick in the castle of Maenza and was urged to eat something, he answered, ‘I would eat fresh herrings, if I had some.’ Now it happened that a pedlar called just then with salted fish. He was asked to open his baskets, and one was found full of fresh herrings, though it had contained only salted fish. But when the herrings were brought to Thomas, he would not eat them.The witness spoke too of a Master Reginald, a cripple, who was cured at the tomb of brother Thomas. Asked how he knew of these two miracles, he replied that that about the fish he had from brother William of Tocco, prior of the Friar Preachers at Benevento, who himself had it from several people at Maenza, where the event occurred. The other story he had from brother Octavian (mentioned above) who averred that he had seen it happen. And in the monastery these miracles were common knowledge.

Thomas didn’t even have the moxie to eat the fresh herrings that God created for him!

There you have the standard of miracles the Catholic authorities consider dispositive. Thomas apparently didn’t work or inspire many miracles in his life, so they had to use incidents from the bottom of the [fish] barrel.  Note, too, that this one is documented third hand.

This is an example of what biologist J. B. S. Haldane called “Aunt Jobisca’s Theorem” (from “The Pobble who had No Toes” by Edward Lear), the theorem being: “It’s a fact the whole world knows.”  Have a look at Haldane’s other theorems here.

There are many other miracles for St. Thomas, too. Here’s one more:

LX. Asked concerning miracles worked by brother Thomas, in life or after death, the witness gave the following as an example of those commonly remembered among the Friar Preachers. Once, at Paris, Thomas, on rising in the morning, found that one of his teeth had grown in a way that hindered him in his speech. He had to conclude a public disputation that morning; so there was nothing for it, he thought, but to set himself to prayer. So he went and prayed, and after a while the tooth fell into his hand. He showed it to Reginald; and afterwards he used to carry it about as a reminder of God’s goodness to him.

Picture 1

78 thoughts on “The Miracle of the Herrings: Why Thomas Aquinas is a saint

  1. The witness spoke too of a Master Reginald

    He showed it to Reginald…

    Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste…

    1. Well they may be raving, but they are probably toothless so they can really only scratch you.

  2. You should all start watching QI on a regular basis. 🙂

    It is a great source of comedy and fun/obscure facts.

          1. Alan Davies is smarter than he lets on on QI sometimes. He’s actually pretty witty. I wish QI were available here but I have to instead rely on YouTube. Whenever David Mitchell is on it’s extra funny because he gets so angry at stupid things.

          2. Oh yes, David Mitchell goes off.
            He went right off at Alan Davies once for saying that humans shouldn’t eat bread or something like that.

            For a really good laugh at homeopathy, search for “mitchell webb homeopathy” on Youtube.

          3. Ha ha yes I did watch that one and it was funny since he had said similar on his own show.

          4. I wish QI were available here but I have to instead rely on YouTube.

            Me too. I always watch the xl versions on the tube.

  3. Thomas Aquinas seems to have had scurvy; he should’ve laid off the preserved fish & at more leafy greens maybe some citrus fruit….maybe then he wouldn’t have lost a tooth.

  4. And here I was hoping that the Miracle of the Herrings was that he used one to cut down the mightiest tree in the forest.

  5. The standard for what constitutes a “miracle” is astonishingly low and fluid. If you’re familiar with the sorts of controls and conditions skeptic organizations require for testing and investigating claims of the paranormal (or anything scientifically “extraordinary”) then the level of evidence even the most stringent and cautious of the faith-full require is pitifully inadequate.

    That’s because the true “miracle” of faith isn’t the event itself — it’s the eagerness to accept it as sufficient, more than sufficient, in the frantic search for spiritual enlightenment. God at work inside us: best explanation.

    Talk about a game they can’t lose. I’ve had self-proclaimed “reasonable Catholics” tell me that the flashy supernatural suspensions of natural law claims are really just for kids and simpletons, well-intentioned fictions designed to strengthen those who are weak in faith. The real miracle, apparently, is Nature.

  6. Asked of how he knew of these miracles, the answer sounds a lot like this:

    “Um, he’s sick. My best friend’s sister’s boyfriend’s brother’s girlfriend heard from this guy who knows this kid who’s going with the girl who saw Ferris pass out at 31 Flavors last night. I guess it’s pretty serious. “

    1. Of course it’s compatible with science. They take the dicey bits out of science by grandly declaring that they are to be removed from its jurisdiction.

      Unless science looks like it’s going to support them.

    2. I have seen reports that the Buddha was canonised as a Catholic saint, but I am not sure whether this is believable or not.

      1. Catholic saints are all Catholics. Episcopalians iirc canonize all sorts of heathens like Gandhi and the Buddha and who knows who else. I think they call King James (VI & I) Saint James because of the bible translation. Or if not them it’s some other sect.

  7. Someone once gave me a French pocket size book dating from the 1800’s written by a priest on the lives of the saints. The book
    seemed to be aimed at the general public. Each saint was represented in a drawing and a page was devoted to the saints associated miracles. As I recall, St. Denis, the patron saint of Paris was said to have been beheaded, whereupon he picked up his head and walked with it for some distance before handing it to a lady. With a glass of nice wine or shot of something stronger it was fun to read it and to marvel at how inane the priestly culture was and learn some French.
    The book might still be somewhere in our attic so I can regale you all with some other wonders to behold.

      1. This book may be a collectors item. The
        title is “Le Journal des Saintes” written by
        Le R. P. Jean-Etienne Grosez de la
        Compagnie de Jèsus, Volume II, The note below the
        title says (my translation) “Their pictures,
        with a short review of their life, and a meditation
        for each day of the year taken from the
        life of the saint or a maxim of the gospel.”
        published in Lyon at the Clerical Press in
        1828. I suppose this is a window into the
        belly of the clerical culture of those times.

        Saint John the Evangelist, a virgin all his
        life was sent to Asia to preach. He was
        immersed in a vat of boiling oil but emerged
        from it unharmed.

        Saint Christophe planted his walking stick
        in the ground and it immediately
        flowered, converting thousands.

        Saint Radegonde, a Queen of France,
        was very kind to the poor and the King
        let become a nun. She mortified herself
        by putting three iron rings around her
        body, which pleased Jesus Christ.

        Saint Louis, King of France, never
        committed a mortal sin according to his
        confessor, always wore sackcloth,
        and subjected himself to various
        sorts of mortification every Friday.

        Saint Grègoire always carried relics
        of the saints, and once calmed a storm,
        but became vain. God punished him by
        making him fall off his horse. He
        was known for his science and his virtue.

        Saint Lin extracted demons and brought
        the dead to life on two occasions.

        Etc. etc. Never mind the meditations
        and prayers included with the biographies.
        I’ve got to stop now and get
        a shot of vodka or pet one of
        our cats after perusing this
        stuff. Its no longer amusing, its
        depressing. It does give one an insight
        into the depths of Catholic culture
        when it was deeply pervasive.

        By the way, the district where St. Denis
        paraded his head in Paris is Montmartre.

        1. Thanks.

          Why can’t we have more miracles like these? I mean, if every pope took office, or left office, by carrying his own head around the Vatican for everyone to see well, that’d be something to take notice of. Surely that’d save a few more otherwise skeptical souls, no?

          It did not pass my notice, by the way, that it was the science guy who became vain and had to be punished. Typical.

          I suppose the pictures are of the saints in reflective pose, as I see on the side of candles in the grocery store, and not in the midsts of their respective miracles? Because if it has pictures of these miracles I’m sure we’d all like to see a few, even sloppy snapshots…

          1. I’d like to know why there is so much pain and torment with saints and miracles. Why not my happy slappy fish one?

          2. I think scientists should be allowed a bit
            of vanity, having discovered so many wonderful
            facts about nature, nor should they be blamed, as a class, for the misuse of science. As I recall, achieving sainthood
            in the Catholic church requires attribution
            of two miracles to the saint. With so many saints there must be some whoppers hidden in
            the records.

          3. Sure. I meant that it was typical that the science guy would be called vain by a religious tract, not that it is typical that scientists are vain, which if they are can, as you say, be excused in any case.

          4. Apologies for having misunderstood
            your comment.
            Now that I think of it, there
            is no greater vanity than the
            doctrine of papal infallibility.

        2. It is curious that the fundamentalist Protestant sect I grew up in rejected all of these miracles whole cloth. In fact they claimed that there were no more miracles after the original twelve apostles died, or maybe after the last person an apostle “laid hands” on died. It always struck me as odd that we’d reject such claims since the claims were clearly older than Protestantism and were fervently attested to by lots of long dead people and believed by many others and written in old books, which seemed so clearly to be the basis we had for all of our beliefs.

          My Protestant sect thought Catholics “superstitious”, though, and might even say exactly that in a sermon immediately before praying for the health of Sister Margaret, wisdom for our leaders, and good weather for the weekend.

          A sincere child trying to make sense of it all would be lucky not to come out slightly damaged from their time in the asylum. I sure feel I was.

        3. I had heard it was Joseph of Arimathea who planted his staff at Glastonbury (the guy who loaned Jesus his burial cave for a couple of days.) Also put the Holy Grail somewhere around there somewhere. I guess planting of staffs was all the rage those days.

  8. I once got a take-away at my local Taco Bell and found that I had overordered. I left the excess Burrito in my fridge but then forgot all about it. Three weeks later I fancied another Burrito, and then realised to my horror that it was probable totally mouldered away by now in the fridge. Looking in the fridge i found that it had miraculously been transported into the freezer by what I must assume was a benovalent supernatural power. My question… am I now halfway to sainthood in the Catholic Church?

    1. I dunno but that story was way more intriguing and believable than most of the saint stories. I was riveted. I really wanted to know how the taco story would end. 🙂

      1. No, no, no! You might have witnessed the miracle, but you did not perform it. I will, however, put your ‘fridge in the queue for sainthood. Please let me know if a second miracle is discovered.

    2. At least. Overordering could itself be seen as miraculous providence, as only three weeks later you wanted more. You might be already in.

  9. I can imagine someone of olden times idly looking at two fingers of one hand
    held upright at arm’s length and – for some reason – making the eyes squint a bit.
    “Holy Smoked Herring – where did that third finger come from?

  10. “So he went and prayed, and after a while the tooth fell into his hand. He showed it to Reginald; and afterwards he used to carry it about as a reminder of God’s goodness to him.”

    So God = Tooth Fairy, the end

  11. Thomas didn’t even have the moxie to eat the fresh herrings that God created for him!

    Maybe he got nervous that God thought he was complaining about the food. When God promises food, he doesn’t promise that it won’t be poisoned.

    Numbers 11:33: And while the flesh was yet between their teeth, ere it was chewed, the wrath of the Lord was kindled against the people, and the Lord smote the people with a very great plague.

    1. Huh. Good to know. It’s also bad to eat anything when you’re in the underworld or you could get trapped there. So, I guess a good rule of thumb is don’t ever eat food from gods.

    2. You know, there isn’t a helluva lot of difference between the act of tainting the meat of a group of diners with plague germs after they place it in their mouths and begin chewing, and pumping Cyclon-B into an enclosed room after compelling a group of people into that room ostensibly for hygienic purposes.

      I don’t want to be too judgemental, though; after all, I am not in possession of sufficient data. Perhaps there were fewer plague victims per capita in the Levant smiting than gas fatalities in the Holocaust.

      1. The NET Bible claims 1/3 of the Isrealites. Guess being the “chosen” people doesn’t win much favor with the Big Cheese.

    3. You know, not enough smiting occurs these days.
      There should be more of it.

      *iPad changed smiting to smiling which made me smile.

      1. I’d accept this fish story as a real miracle if the fresh fish were extra fresh so when he picked one up it just slapped him across the face with its fishy body!

  12. Jesus Christ

    What is wrong with all you people!?

    That night after he lost the crooked tooth, he awoke in the morn to find a crooked coin had miraculously appeared neath his pillow.

  13. There’s a Spartan saying recorded by Plutarch that I think the Vatican should study before they keep declaring things miracles.

    “When at the adjacent gate a snake had coiled around the key, and the soothsayers declared this to be a prodigy, he said, ‘It doesn’t seem so to me, but if the key had coiled around the snake, that would be a prodigy!'”-Leotychides, son of Ariston

  14. “It’s a fact the whole world knows.”

    Or at least (with apologies to any Hungarians out there) everyone in Hungary. I once had a Hungarian landlady (who had escaped to the US in 1956) who was an attorney for the IRS. She was also nuts. Once in a conversation she alluded to the notion that FDR had syphilis. “Oh, really, Olga, why do you say that,” I asked. She waved me off with, “Uff, everyone in Hungary knew he had seephyliss.”

  15. Okay, I will explain a couple of things to all you heathens: 1. There is a website listing all the ‘pending’ saints still in need of a miracle to make the cut. So if you are in need of a miracle, these guys are just champing at the bit to perform one. 2. By the time all the Baby-boomer Catholics got past junior high (or middle school or whatever they call it now) we knew the reason we could not eat meat on Fridays was that at the time this ‘dogma’ suddenly became an offense to God the Italian fishing industry was undergoing some serious reversals and the Vatican was heavily invested in it. Perhaps why herring is so miraculous. Could be why the simplistic fish became the symbol of Christianity. (not really, but it’s funnier that way) And I think they should build one of those water amusement parks at Lourdes; could be some serious revenue here.

    I still remember my high school principal, Sister Thomas Aquinas. We were not overfond of each other. I recall being called to her office shortly before my graduation. She said that my attendance had only averaged four days week, so why should she allow me to graduate? I clearly remember standing, putting my hands palms down on her desk, leaning over her until we were almost nose to nose(Sister Tom was over 6 feet tall and I am about 5 feet; she always tried to keep the the higher ground during our little altercations) and telling her she should let me because I had the highest grade point average in my class and if she chose not to allow it, I would be right back there with her come September. Needless to say, I graduated that Spring.

  16. I find saints stories to be utterly depressing as examples of wishful credulity. Additionally, they tend to be so trivial. Where is the saint that stopped a war? Ended a plague? Cook’s bones! If god wanted to work through people to perform miracles, why not answer the big prayers? End a war, no, I don’t think so, but this woman doesn’t want to get married, so I’ll give her a beard (St. Wilgefortis). I bet it’s that bastard Theodicy that’s behind it!

    1. My favorite WTF miracles are the war ones. I herd a lot of WW I and WW II “miracles” growing up, things like where some bloke is “miraculously” saved by a bullet that bounces off his coat button or something. Really? God takes time to step down and intervene in that great blood bath and he decides to intervene by saving the odd soldier or holy relic( Why not, say, just make that table in the Wolf’s Lair conference room a little weaker? That’d be a miracle worth doing.

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